Low carb diets have their place in the world. Especially ketogenic diets for those with major health issues (think epilepsy and various neurological issues). But for fat loss? They work, but may not be entirely ideal, and we’ll get to covering that in a bit.
However, before you go any further, I want to you to ask yourself this:
“are you particularly afraid of one macronutrient over another?”
I don’t mean afraid, as if it might make you sick or kill you, but in the back of your mind… do you find yourself worrying that overconsumption of it might make you pack on the fat? Or maybe you worry that eating a certain food won’t help you lose fat?
To elaborate, while many of us might not want to admit it, it’s easy to get caught up in some of the ideas that have come and gone about various macronutrients being the one to blame for causing us to get fat and stay fat.
The Birth Of Low Fat
In the mid 1970’s, there was some research coming out suggesting that saturated fats, especially a consistent intake of them, correlated with higher than healthy levels of LDL cholesterol — think of foods like fatty pork, beef, butter, whole milk, and eggs.
As a result, scientists deemed these high-fat foods to be bad, and that if we reduced our intake of them, then it would eliminate the dietary cause of ill heart health.
So as the low-fat era had begun, the idea was to eat more carbohydrates in place of these fatty foods. So things like pasta, bread, rice, potatoes, grains, etc were encouraged over fatty cuts of meat, extra butter, coconut oil, and other cooking oils.
But depending on what sources you look at, and which ones you trust, you will definitely find opposing sides regardless of your current bias.
Despite the so-called discoveries about which nutrients are making us fat and unhealthy, heart disease is still the number one killer in America, and regardless of low fat, or high fat intakes, we know one thing for sure — obesity is on the rise.
“The obesity epidemic is one of the country’s most serious health problems. Adult obesity rates have doubled since 1980, from 15 to 30 percent, while childhood obesity rates have more than tripled. Rising obesity rates have significant health consequences, contributing to increased rates of more than 30 serious diseases. These conditions create a major strain on the health care system. More than one-quarter of health care costs are now related to obesity.” — source (bold is my emphasis)
Seems that the dietary changes imposed on us throughout the years haven’t made the impact health professionals thought it would.
My conclusion, in general? We’re eating way too much, and not exercising enough, as a whole.
The Birth of Low Carb
More recently than the low-fat craze, we’ve found that if it ain’t the fat that’s causing all these problems, then maybe it’s the carbohydrates — in particular processed sugar. We have the Paleo movement, and various books written on the dangers of sugar.
Think of Gary Taubes’ book Good Calories, Bad Calories. If you’re a lay person just trying to figure out how to lose weight, this book could be the missing piece you’ve been looking all over for.
However, if you dig deeper, you’ll realize that much of the research is cherry-picked, and just not scientifically sound compared to current conclusions. Since I am not a food, or nutritional scientist, I will defer to the experts here:
James Krieger has a short write-up on Gary’s work. Here are some quotes:
“So, in the late 90’s and into this decade, things changed. We went from being fat-phobic, to carb-phobic. Publication of books such as Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution and Michael Eades’s Protein Power told us it was the carbs that were making us fat. If you wanted to drop the weight, you needed to drop the carbs.
Gary Taubes expanded on this thesis with the publication of his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Taubes asserted that America wasn’t getting fatter because we were eating too much fat, or because we were eating too many calories and exercising too little. We were getting fatter because we were eating too many carbohydrates. The carbohydrates were causing us to accumulate fat, which was then driving us to eat too much and exercise too little.”
“A close examination of the latter half of Taubes’s book reveals logical fallacies, erroneous assumptions, misquotations of research, and an absence of scientific data that does not fit with his story about obesity and his hypothesized cause. In fact, a general theme is the use of very old scientific data, despite the fact that newer data of a higher quality is available.”
Here’s another post James did critiquing the ideas behind Gary’s book.
To further fuel the low-carb flame, have a look at my friend and mentor Alan Aragon’s take on it all.
In the opposing side of this low-carb debate, you can find people thriving, and even being very lean on very high carb diets — even raw vegans consuming upwards of 4-5000 calories per day, where their diets consist mostly of raw fruit and veggies. Some even consume grains!
We’re talking a TON of food everyday, and they seem to maintain a healthy weight, and some are even very athletic despite very low fat and protein intakes (less than 30% of total intake combined).
We’re All Biased
Let me get something out of the way. We’re all biased, no matter what. Even the smartest, most well-read, and studied scientist will harbor some bias. It’s part of the human experience.
It’s near impossible to be free of bias due to our own experiences, and desires. However, it’s not completely impossible to be very objective, and critical.
And if you have a bias toward a particular macronutrient making you fat, you’re more likely to go look for the evidence which will confirm your current bias. I had a phone consultation with a man a few weeks ago who was completely sold on the idea that sugar was destroying his insides, and probably the cause of most disease.
He’d been following a low-carb plan for most of the week, but was convinced that if he ate his carbs at night via Carb Backloading, then all was well. It could be donuts, beer, pasta, whatever — as long as it fit within the criteria of Carb Backloading, then he was in the clear.
But guess what?
The guy struggled majorly with losing fat, and making any progress with his body composition despite lots of intelligent training protocols (I will note: he wasn’t messing up here).
The biggest piece of irony? He seemed unwilling to change what he was doing because he knew that a diet with carbs was sure to send him into long term inflammation, and disease.
Tell that to the people of Southeast Asia who have been thriving on a high carb diet for a long, long time.
Confirming Our Biases
Whatever worked for us, must work for others. Or what someone convinces us of… must work, even if it doesn’t align with our reality.
This is why you’ll often find people who’ve been successful at losing weight with one method or the other (method being low fat, or low carb, Paleo, Twinkie diet), to be complete zealots for a particular method.
For instance, some people have gone on to lose lots of weight using a ketogenic or very low carb diet, and keep it off, while seemingly maintaining some sort of health in the process. They might be ripped, or relatively lean, and full of energy.
But there are also people who’ve tread similar waters and crashed hard. My idea is that these people who seemingly thrive on such a diet will crash and burn before long.
From what I’ve observed, sticking with a long term low carb diet is mostly impossible for the majority. For most who start this type of diet, they get what Matt Stone calls the Low Carb Honeymoon (catecholamine honeymoon article) where they feel all great, and nice, and full of energy.
At first, on a low carb diet, you go through a transition period of feeling like freshly dispensed horse manure. It will last a few days, but once you get through it, it’s like a revelation from the creator himself. You feel buzzed, excited, and full of energy.
You’re also probably noticing some quick weight loss, as the glycogen burns up, and water flushes out of your system. Losing up to 10 pounds in the first week is not unheard of. It’s the ultimate tool for creating a quick positive feedback loop.
The good news is you feel great. You’re energetic, and you might see things within your body improve. Matt mentions some notice their allergies clear up, aches and pains subside, etc.
But the problem lies within the period following this honeymoon phase. Why, exactly?
Because you can’t rely on stress hormones forever. Those quick shots of adrenaline are reserved for stressful situations, not for daily living. Over time, you’ll get burned out.
And then all of the sudden, a steady decline in energy and general not-so-good feelings occurs. One might notice their cravings for food, mostly carb-heavy foods. It might become impossible to rely on willpower anymore to restrict carbohydrates.
Instead of taking some time to rest, and refeed in a manner that serves your body and mind, the thing I see the most is someone just saying “to hell with it, order 5 pizzas, a cheese tray and keg of beer” and then they continue the feasting throughout the week.
After rapid weight gain, and feelings of shame and guilt, they go back to what worked before which is harsh dieting, and this can open a huge can of worms for your mental and physical health.
Don’t Fall For The Low-Carb Trap
I will admit, I am biased because I have dealt extensively with thyroid problems in the past, and one of the best things I ever did for myself was place a huge priority on carbohydrate intake. I also have some great doctors on my side who help me analyze labs, and consult me with my dietary strategy.
In fact, I’ve taken some form of T3/T4 (medication) combination since 2008, but I finally went off all medication in July 2014, and haven’t been on meds since. (crossing fingers it stays that way)
We all have biases, but my reasons are based on my experience, and what I think to be an objective view on what the body needs in terms of energy intake.
We all need glucose for our most important organ: our brain. If you use your brain, it only makes sense to consume enough carbohydrate to cover the energy demands of your grey matter.
How much is ideal? that’s up for debate based on your activity level, but from everything I’ve read and studied, I think going below 100g carbohydrates per day is rarely ever a good thing for anyone.
NOTE: I am not referring to extreme dieting, such as contest diets, or trying to make a competition weight. I am in no way an advocate of such dieting practices — so much to the point that I don’t work with fitness competitors due to what it takes to get people to very low levels of body fat. It’s unhealthy, and not worth the stress on the body.
Now you may be asking yourself… how can someone do well on a low carb, or ketogenic diet if we need glucose for the brain?
Humans are incredibly good at surviving. While the brain needs glucose, you don’t have to eat carbs. You can simply make the sugar you need from ingested protein, or the protein you’re made of (your meat wagon, ala skeletal muscles) via gluconeogenesis. However, this is a highly stressful process.
And since you’re already training hard, and dieting to release fatty acids via a caloric deficit, you’re just adding more fuel to the fire. Stress is stress is stress. And it will build up, and bite back eventually.
If you can avoid the dietary stress of gluconeogenesis, and actually spare your skeletal muscles from atrophy by simply eating more carbs in place of protein or fat, why wouldn’t you?
To all you Paleo, low carb advocates doing Crossfit and wasting away on a low carb diet — please tell me why this make sense.
As a result, I’m an advocate of a more moderate approach in terms of setting up your macronutrient intake. In general, I try to place carbohydrates as the majority of intake, when possible for the individual.
Looking at my current intake, which is slightly hypocaloric for beach season, the percentage of my carbohydrate intake is around 50-55% average for the week. Protein comes in at around 25-30% most days, and fat is the rest.
Despite training 6 times every 8 days, I’m able to keep my intake relatively high, and rarely feel any major hunger pangs.
Every few weeks, I will have a spike day (thanks to Scott Abel and Amir Siddiqui) for these recommendations where I eat about 2-3x my average daily intake for some mental and physical stress relief.
In the last few years, my recommendations for clients have slowly evolved into a more higher carb ideal. The main things I notice are the following:
- ability to maintain higher intensity exercise over longer periods of time
- fewer issues with hunger due to more carbohydrates being present (food choices matter, folks)
- better sleep (I find carbs before bed really aid in ability to get to sleep)
- better fullness in the muscles due to keeping glycogen levels higher than on a low carb diet
- More steady weight loss over the long term, but not as rapid as you might get when lowering carbs significantly, at least in the beginning
Lowering carb intake significantly (fewer than 100g per day for long periods, ala weeks and months) is mostly a bad idea if you’re otherwise healthy, and exercising. I’d even say it’s probably a bad idea in general, but there are some outliers who would fall outside of the realm of generalities. So, that’s the disclaimer.
Keep mind… the very small individuals might have fewer calories to work from on a hypocaloric diet, so there are exceptions, but unless you’re 100 pounds and sleeping all day, then I still don’t see a major need to reduce carbs further.
People Are Gonna Believe What They Want To
Some people are going to blame fat intake for making them obese. Others will blame fructose. Some might blame table sugar.
Others may even claim sugar to be as addictive as cocaine, which is highly ludicrous, and sensational. My cynical counter to that argument is “HAVE YOU EVER BEEN ADDICTED TO COCAINE?”
And my guess is that any internet warrior spouting such ideas has never been addicted to anything like cocaine, and has no idea what they’re talking about… but sensational headlines work, and if you’re already afraid of sugar, then it will just confirm your bias even more.
So here’s why I recommend that you abandon low-carb, even for an experiment to see what happens.
Higher carbohydrate diets tend to be better for thyroid health, which is the master organ for regulating your metabolism. If you consistently under eat (stay in a deficit), and lower carbs, it’s been shown to down-regulate thyroid hormone production.
Carbohydrates are not as easily stored as body fat as dietary fat will be, but an excess of them in a caloric surplus can blunt fat oxidation, thus resulting in the fat being stored in the fat cells. For a full explanation on how we get fat, check out this article.
What You Need To Know:
We know that the caloric deficit is what matters most for a diet to work properly — meaning you lose fat mass. It’s even more important to keep protein intake sufficient for maintaining muscle. I covered everything you need to know about setting up a fat loss diet previously so check that out. For protein needs, How much protein do I need is a great resource.
Training intensely, and frequently, is very important. Check out my suggestions for fat loss training.
When it comes to eating more carbs, it can be scary if you’ve had a food phobia in the past. My suggestion is to start slow, track your intake, and get your carbohydrates up in a manner that you can easily control. Keep in mind that if your fat intake is high, and you want to maintain a caloric deficit, you’ll have to lower fats accordingly.
Remember — no single source of macronutrient is the reason you get fat. It’s a caloric surplus over time. If it took you a year to gain 40 pounds of fat, it might take you that long to lose it.
At the end of the day, your diet needs to be sustainable, and it needs to serve your needs for long term adherence to reach your goals.
If you need help with this, I’m still accepting coaching clients, so you can apply for a phone call here.